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The Perils of Young Pitchers

One of my more searing minor Mets memories — to use a very Mets-fan turn of phrase — is from May 3, 1996.

That was Paul Wilson [1]‘s sixth career start, against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Wilson, one-third of the vaunted Generation K, hadn’t exactly streaked out of the gate: As the second month of his big-league career began, he was 1-1 with a 6.92 ERA. Yet as Mets fans we knew — or at least devoutly hoped, with an intensity that felt like knowing — that he was far better than that. He’d been unlucky and hurt by some bad bullpen work, but he’d also shown flashes of being the shove-you-around power pitcher prophesied by so many breathless scouting reports.

Against the Cubs on May 3, Wilson took a 2-1 lead into the ninth, having struck out eight and scattered three hits. After a leadoff bunt single, Wilson struck out Brian McRae [2] and Ryne Sandberg and stood an out away from his first career complete game — and, I was certain, the first steps along his path to glory.

I was at my old high school that day for some reason; I vaguely recall it had something to do with advice for the kids who ran the student newspaper, which now seems like a terrible thing to let me offer. That was before cellphones, but I had a Motorola Sports Trax beeper that kept me abreast of Mets games through little LCD runners, changing numerals and bleeps and bloops. I waited and waited and then recoiled in disbelief as my little beeper emitted a disconsolate bloop and then a dreadful, from out-of-nowhere verdict.

CHC 4 NYM 2 (F).

The details had to wait, but that made them no less dreadful. Despite having John Franco [3] in the pen, the Mets had left Wilson in north of 100 pitches, opted to walk the dangerous Mark Grace [4], and pitched to Sammy Sosa [5] — who Wilson had retired three times, twice via strikeouts. Wilson’s first pitch to Sosa was his 107th, a slider that hung in the strike zone. Sosa hit it onto Waveland Avenue. From a complete-game victory to a sour defeat in a few lousy seconds [6].

(If you want more there’s video, but why do you want more?)

Somehow that was a quarter-century ago. I’ve now watched dozens and probably hundreds of sequels to that moment of decision: young Mets pitcher, glittering performance, a lot of pitches thrown, a tight game. What do you do? Take him out with the proverbial good taste in his mouth and trust the bullpen to handle the rest? I’ve seen that fail more often than I’d like to recall. Leave him to persevere and finish matters himself? I’ve seen that one go badly awry too. The only lesson I’ve ever drawn is the right course of action is obvious afterwards but not so much in the moment.

So, anyway: The Mets played the Rays in St. Petersburg Friday night, with both teams wearing camo caps and stirrups that looked like puttees — a new wrinkle in baseball military salutes though not necessarily a sartorially wise one. David Peterson [7] was terrific. So was Tyler Glasnow [8]. They dueled through a taut, interesting little game in which nothing much happened except for a couple of brief flurries in which everything happened all at once.

Glasnow looks like an action figure come to life: six-foot-eight, barbarian-hero hair, blandly handsome face. And he’s got superhero stuff: a fastball that can hit 100 and a curve best described as deadly. His arsenal would have been unimaginable when I was a kid, the kind of thing that would make you accuse your little brother of messing with the videogame settings, but it elicits little notice today, which is just one of the many extraordinary things about the modern game we take for granted. For Glasnow, the flurry of unwelcome activity came in the fifth: After retiring the first 14 Mets, he gave up an infield single to Kevin Pillar [9] and a homer to Jonathan Villar [10]. Villar was the only one involved who’d thought his ball was going out, and posed beneath its arc in admiration; he was also correct. Just like that, Glasnow’s excellent day had seemingly crumbled.

Peterson’s flurry came in the eighth, with a 2-0 lead and a pitch count in the 80s — up there but not necessarily alarming. With no one out and the Mets’ bullpen quiet, he threw a fastball to Mike Zunino [11] that caught too much of the plate and crashed into the upper deck, which was fortunate because otherwise it might have broken a car window in Orlando. The next hitter, Kevin Padlo [12], doubled for his first big-league hit, a milestone I can normally celebrate but that left me muttering and swearing given the circumstances. Peterson got Brett Phillips [13] on a strikeout and yielded the mound to Trevor May [14], who recorded a lineout on a nifty grab by Villar but then surrendered a game-tying double to Manuel Margot [15], who somehow has a career average of 1.100 against the Mets with 526 RBIs and whom I do not wish to discuss further in this post or preferably ever.

Should Luis Rojas [16] have let Peterson start the eighth? Should he at least have had someone hot so Peterson didn’t face anyone after Zunino? Should he have done what he did and then joined us to shake our fists and moan at the heavens? Beats me. I didn’t know in the moment, having seen every strategy go wrong at one juncture or another, so I won’t pretend to know now.

What I do know is that the rest of the game felt like a depressing variant of Clue — some Ray was going to kill us and I wasn’t particularly motivated to find out exactly who and in what room and with which implement.

Still, the coup de grace was creatively cruel. With one out in the ninth and the bases loaded, Aaron Loup [17] was brought in to face pinch-hitter Joey Wendle [18]. In that situation, so many things can be your undoing that if you lose you shrug and say, Well, of course. But Loup struck out Wendle looking. One more lousy out and the Mets would have a free runner on second and various ridiculousness would ensue, possibly involving victory.

Phillips was up, and he served Loup’s first pitch over the infield. It didn’t land on Waveland Avenue or anything, but it went far enough [19] and now I was annoyed where 30 seconds earlier I would have shrugged.

That’s another scenario I’ve lived through before, and will live through again. Baseball will kill you if you let it; my only advice is not to let it.